De Blasio under fire amid new ISIS threat

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New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is coming under sharp criticism for making decisions that may have undermined the effectiveness of his police department’s counter-terrorism operations.

Thirteen years after the 9/11 attacks on Manhattan, prominent security experts say de Blasio has made fighting terrorism a lower priority in order to appease the communities that helped elect him.

“A classic case of taking your eye off the ball at the worst possible time is Mayor de Blasio in New York,” said John Lehman, a former member of the 9/11 Commission.

He said de Blasio is failing to take seriously enough the new threat posed to New York and other major American cities by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which has reportedly trained dozens of American jihadists.

“At the very time when the threat suddenly emerges in a whole new additional form focused on the U.S., he decides to end some of the most effective programs in the country in the NYPD counterterrorism unit,” Lehman said.

“He has reassigned people and vehicles and special equipment to non-counterterrorist activities,” he added.

The liberal Democratic mayor has come under fire for several controversial decisions since succeeding Michael Bloomberg, who created a massive counterterrorism unit during his three terms as mayor.

In April, de Blasio disbanded a special unit tasked with conducting surveillance of mosques and Muslim groups suspected of radical ties.

Michael Mukasey, who served as U.S. attorney general from 2007 to 2009, said the unit was instrumental in mapping out possible terrorist ties within Muslim communities.

“They weren’t simply conducting surveillance of mosques and Muslims. They were mapping communities, figuring out where someone from Lebanon or Yemen or any of the other hot spots would go if they wanted to come to this country and find refuge,” he said.

“At mosques that had particularly militant imams, they did have people who would tip them off to what other people were doing or saying. To the extent they’ve curtailed that, I think we’re all less safe,” he added.

Mukasey questioned de Blasio’s decision to replace David Cohen, a former CIA official who served as deputy police commissioner for intelligence, with John Miller, a former television journalist and FBI spokesman. Cohen, who previously served as the CIA’s director of operations, oversaw the NYPD’s surveillance of Muslim groups.

“He was an alumnus of the CIA and that was a distinct advantage. It was regarded as a source of suspicion by the new administration,” he said.

De Blasio traveled to Nicaragua as a leftist activist in 1988, around the time the CIA was helping rebels trying to overthrow the socialist Sandinista government.

De Blasio also curtailed the police department’s stop-and-frisk program, which authorizes officers to stop, question and pat down people they suspect of criminal conduct. As these stops have declined, shootings in some communities, such as Brownsville in Brooklyn, have increased, according to the New York Daily News.

Lehman said the changed policy will dissuade officers from stopping a person who might appear to be wearing an explosive vest or carrying a suspicious package.

“If you see someone with a package or a bulky vest, you are taking a great risk if you stop and frisk them. If the person is a person of color and not carrying a bomb or evidence of potential terrorist risks, as a cop you’re in big trouble,” he said.

Lehman said de Blasio also undermined the implementation of the federal government’s Real ID program, a key recommendation of the 9/11 Commission, by approving a program to issue municipal IDs of lower standards. They are intended to serve undocumented immigrants and other residents who have difficulty obtaining regular state IDs.

“They’re completely opposed to Real ID and the other issues that were adopted by Congress as a result of our recommendations,” Lehman said. 

In 2004, the 9/11 Commission urged Congress to set standards for birth certificates and driver’s licenses, which it did by passing the Real ID Act of 2005.

Mukasey calls the Real ID program “very” important.

“You need a reliable way of identifying people. You don’t simply issue ID cards willy nilly to anybody who wants them and shows up and has his picture taken and tells you what his name is,” he said.

Mukasey said weak ID standards combined with the “porous” Southern border put the nation at greater risk for attack.

Rep. Peter King (R), who formerly served as chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee and represents a suburb of New York City, said de Blasio has made it tougher for law enforcement to combat terrorism.

“To me it’s too bad the NYPD has to go through all this because their system was working,” he said.

King praised the 1,000-officer counterterrorism unit built up by Bloomberg and former police commissioner Raymond Kelly. He said they fell prey to a backlash led by the New York Times and the ACLU.

“You had the New York Times editorial board, the civil liberties union, the Associated Press; there was this gang-up on what Ray Kelly was doing,” he said. “To me it was effective. Privacy and rights were being protected and, most importantly, the city was being protected.”

King noted that de Blasio won the 2013 mayoral race by campaigning against stop-and-frisk and promising to end police surveillance.

“There’s no doubt that when he came into office that there was this wave against what the NYPD had been doing as far as counter-terrorism and Bill de Blasio rode part of that wave,” he said. 

The mayor’s press office did not respond to email and telephone requests for comment.

Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), one of New York’s leading Democrats, declined to comment specifically on de Blasio’s policies.

“I have a lot of faith in Bill Bratton,” he said in reference to de Blasio’s appointed police commissioner.

King praised Bratton and Miller but he said their jobs may be tougher now because of de Blasio’s policies.

He said he still has faith in New York’s counterterrorism programs “because of Bill Bratton and because of John Miller, who are both experts on terrorism.

“If anyone can make it work they can but I wish they didn’t have to make the adjustments they’ve had to make,” he added.